A faded sign that says "Fire training ground".

Defense to truck PFAS-contaminated soil from Katherine’s RAAF Base Tindal to Melbourne

In a couple of weeks scores of half-size shipping containers filled with tons of toxic soil will begin making the 3,500-kilometre journey from northern Australia to Victoria.

Defense has begun tackling the toxic legacy of the firefighting foam that was used for decades at the Tindal Royal Australian Air Force Base and other sites around Australia.

It has been more than six years since residents in Katherine were told that persistently high levels of toxic compounds, known collectively as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, had been found in their only drinking source.

Every year since, roughly 40 kilograms of the chemical has leached into the groundwater from the RAAF base, where large areas of contaminated soil have been left to seep.

Amanda Lee says there will be an instant reduction in the amount of PFAS leaching from the area.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Defense has conceded there is “no silver bullet” that would effectively destroy all traces of the “forever chemical” from the base, but it is committed to solving the problem.

“It’s a complex chemical and it’s a very complex remedial challenge,” Defense’s remediation advisor Amanda Lee said.

“What we’ve done here today is come up with the best solution available to us today with proven technology to try and address this problem.”

Despite explicit warnings dating back to 1987 that the product must not enter the environment, many thousands of litres of the firefighting foam were discarded onto bare earth or washed into stormwater systems and evaporation ponds.

A digger operates on top of a mound of smashed up concrete.
High concentrations of PFAS have been found in the old fire training area.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

‘Big reduction in mass’

Now two large areas at Tindal, where RAAF firefighters would wash their equipment and where firefighting foams were used in practice scenarios, have been identified as high priority for remediation.

This week the massive effort to dig up the estimated 60,000 tons of contaminated soil and crushed concrete from the two areas began.

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